Aircraft Accidents and the Perfect Storm

Are we headed for the Perfect Storm?  The question reminds me of a story.

Several years ago, when I was with the FAA, I was enrouting (‘Enrouting’ means to conduct FAA surveillance on a flight crew while flying in the cockpit jumpseat) on an Embraer ERJ 145; this jumpseat is akin to sitting on a vegetable crate while resting your nose on your left knee.  The two pilots, both of whom were less than half my age, were quiet the entire flight; either I reminded them of their grumpy Grandfather or they didn’t like the FAA, either reason being credible.

While on final approach, with the field in sight is a very busy time for the flight crew; I remain silent, observing.  However, the first officer suddenly turned to give me the tour of his super-zoomie instrumentation.  I looked from the Captain to the approaching runway to the altimeter as he explained the digital technology.  Finally, the Captain turned and scolded the first officer; ordering him to get back to landing the plane.  It seemed to me that the first officer’s obsession with his aircraft was disturbing; it is a similar obsession I had seen time and again for years after.

NOTE: I’ve contemplated writing a book about my experiences, but as my friend, Dianne always says, “Stephen, your flying stories scare the living hell out of me.”

The progression of the trans-ocean airliner has seen some quick evolutions; in an industry that is less than 120 years old, that has taken us from Kitty Hawk to the unplanet, Pluto, years are a short period of time.  When one considers what goes into an airliner, the time from drawing board to first flight is irrelevant to the time beyond.  It may take three-to-six years to design and launch a new airframe, but whether it stays is determined by the public’s acceptance, feasibility, cost-per-flight hour, and the international customer’s economy.  One can’t view the success of the B747 without also considering the ineffective reaction to the Concorde Super Sonic Transport and its short lifespan, again, in years.

The Dictionary defines a Perfect Storm as a Noun: ‘a detrimental or calamitous situation or event arising from the powerful combined effect of a unique set of circumstances’.   My question, again: Are we headed for the Perfect Storm?  I feel it is a relevant question due to our trust in technology, complacency with aviation safety and refusal to move cautiously.  The first of the unique circumstances is financial.

In the early part of the last century through the 1970s, older aircraft had a flight navigator to fill out the four-man cockpit, with the captain, first officer, and second officer (flight engineer).  The jet age replaced the navigator with instrumentation.  In the 1980s, aircraft like the new B767 made the second officer disappear.  In the 1990s, most three-man cockpits became two-man, e.g. the B747 and the DC-10 to MD-10/MD-11.  Since the 1990s, all commercial airliners are manufactured strictly with two-man crews.

These are important progressions in aviation; each advance has been driven by cost and technology.  One less crewman per thousands of flights, per dozens of airlines, multiplied by per diem, hotels, benefits, training and pay equals BIG savings for the airlines, thus BIG profits for the manufacturers.

The second circumstance: technology used to unseat the trans-ocean airliner’s third crewman took enormous leaps into the new century as digital technology replaced analog.  New airframe and engine designs held reliabilities steady at 98% and better; the introduction of Extended Twin Engine Operations reduced overseas flights by hours, allowing airliners more direct routes over the oceans.  Airframes streamlined, causing less drag, better lift.  Finally, from the 90s to today, the aircraft is more and more responsible for the flight.  The pilot enters the airliner’s flight plan into the flight management computer, taxies it to the end of the runway and hits a button.  Today’s airliner can do almost everything but deploy/retract the gear and secondary flight controls, while the pilot babysits; the ability for an aircraft to do even these menial tasks is probably already here.  With the introduction of NextGen, the pilot becomes even less relevant as the air traffic computers talk to the airliner’s computers for instructions and automatic adjustments.

Now we face a pilot shortage.  The military, once the breeding ground for commercial pilots, has been busy offering pilots attractive incentives to stay military.  Airlines are anxious to hire pilots with less than required flight time; meanwhile foreign carriers attract young pilots to fly for the Middle and Far East airlines.

So, we are adding the third circumstance: do the airliner manufacturers feel the time is right for a single-man cockpit?  Or, with the dawn of unmanned aerial vehicles, are we looking at pilot-less airliners, fully automated?  Airlines are investing millions into the technology to do just that.  And the manufacturers are happily assisting.

Is this the Perfect Storm a-brewing?

In my first novel, I pointed out the dangers of trusting the computer.  Have we reached the technological plateau of automation perfection or are we too quick to accept this future, whether we like it or not?

Oh, and there’s another shortage on the horizon: Who’s going to fix these things?

2 thoughts on “Aircraft Accidents and the Perfect Storm”

  1. Excellent post as always. You and me have hadn’t plenty of talks about the role automation plays in aviation today, systems are ever more complex. I will say this though- I would be extremely uncomfortable getting into an airliner that didn’t have some sort of crew, or crew member. All of those automated systems are great until some aircraft gets into a situation that is so rare that no high priced engineer could even think of it. Automation is great until situations like this come up, then you have to depend on the crew to get you out of them. And with pilots being less and less experienced, they just aren’t that seasoned anymore. I fear the day that we outlaw flight crew members in an airliner.

    1. Francis, I know you can appreciate, where you work, the planets that have to align to make the pilot-less cockpit work. There are multiple benefits to no crews, especially to the air carrier, but they don’t guarantee a safe trip. I believe the choice is going to be made despite safety concerns – or anti-terrorist concerns, as well; how easy will it become to virtually commandeer an aircraft; I think this is a topic for next week. Ah, it will get scarier before it gets better, I’m afraid.

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